Six Pieces of Bad Advice New Writers Need to Ignore

A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote a post about writing as a hobby as opposed to a profession (hint: they're both good choices), I got a couple of comments from new writers who were discouraged to read how much work and dedication it takes to become a professional writer.

They can be forgiven for being unaware of the realities, since so much misinformation about the business of writing has become part of our general culture.

From Ernest Hemingway's self-mythologizing to tales of fictional writers like Jessica Fletcher, Richard Castle, and Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris, we've been shown a romanticized—and mostly untrue—picture of what it's like to be a writer.

The indie revolution has brought a whole new twist to the myth-making. New writers now hear all they have to do is write a book, put it on Amazon, send out a few Tweets, and they're off to big-bux land in the footsteps of Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey.

And for some reason, everybody who's ever watched Oprah (or Richard and Judy in the UK) thinks they know all about what it takes to be a professional writer. Tell somebody you write and you'll immediately get lots of clueless advice from the "civilians" around you—from your family to your hairdresser to that know-it-all guy at work.

But the truth is, writing for a living is hard. If you love it, that won't stop you for a minute, but if you believe there are shortcuts, you're going to be awfully disappointed.

Here are six pieces of bad advice it's best to ignore if you want to launch a successful writing career.

1) Start with genre fiction, because it's easy to write.

People will tell you to start with something “easy” like a romance/mystery/kid’s book.

Yeah, I heard that one a lot when I was starting out. So the first book I tried to write was a romance. I spent nearly eight months on it. Oh, what a disaster!  I learned the hard way that every genre takes years to learn to write well. And if you don’t love a genre and read it voraciously, you’ll never be good enough enough to gain an audience.

This is true whether you self-publish or go the traditional route.

Readers are just as picky as agents when it comes to choosing what they buy. They don't want fill-in-the blanks fiction. They want passion and originality within their genre.

Also, if your book is successful in getting a traditional publisher or a bunch of fans, they're going to want more of the same. Whatever genre you succeed in is the one you'll be expected to write throughout your career. Why would you do that with a genre you don't love?

2) Write about vampires/zombies/dystopian YA/mommy porn: that's what's selling.

Alas, traditional publishing has smoked its last 50 Shades cigarette and sneaked out the back door without leaving a note. Dystopian apocalypses have met their Armageddon. Vampires and zombies have been safely returned to their graves, and werepersons, angel/demons and witch/warlocks have been banished to the shadows from whence they came.

The known authors in these genres are still selling, but traditional publishing is saturated and won't look at new writers in most of these genres. You can self-publish, but you'll be on the tail end of a waning trend, so you'll need to bring something original to it.

The big trends in traditional publishing are usually over by the time the general public hears about them. By the time something's big on TV or film, it's been played out in the publishing industry.

As I said in #1, only write what you love. If you simply adore the undead, your passion may bring a new spark to the genre and you may find a great niche audience in the indie market. But only write in the currently popular genres if they are at the top of your own reading list.

Writing to trends almost always backfires, as I found out myself. Back in the 1980s, I tried to write a "glitz" novel. Glitz was super-hot at the time. Judith Kranz and Jackie Collins were queens of the genre (and the bestseller lists.) The stories involved lots of designer name-dropping and steamy sex. But no matter how hard I worked at glorifying sex and money, the book turned out funny.

I was actually writing chick lit, but I didn't know that because it hadn't been invented yet. I still write chick lit, a genre that had its heyday at the beginning of the millenium. But I didn't write it because I was trying to follow a trend. It's what I like to read.

I'm not telling you to dump your ms. in one of these genres, or even that your books in these genres won't sell as indies. But don't write in a genre just because it's selling right now, because it's probably oversaturated.

3) Querying agents is a good way to get feedback.

I often hear new writers encouraging each other to "send it out: it can't hurt to try." (This often comes from your critique group, who are re-e-e-e-ally tired of reworking chapter one for the sixteenth time.)

But actually, it can hurt. A lot. Rejection is no fun. Why invite it when it means nothing? And a rejection from an agent means just that: zip, zilch, nada.

These days, most agents don't give feedback of any kind. Even the gentlest suggestion can backfire when upset authors retaliate with nasty return emails or worse...much worse.

That's why a good percentage of agents don't respond to queries at all unless they're interested, and most of the others send a one sentence generic note along the lines of "this does not fit our needs at this time."

Every writing group and forum is full of complaints from new authors who are trying to read meaning into those one-liners. But believe me, they only mean your book didn't tick off all the boxes on the list of what the agent's contacts at the Big Five are looking for this week. That's ALL.

For more on what rejections really mean, here's Ruth Harris's post on the subject.

There's also the problem that if your query is especially clueless, the agent may remember your name, and not in a good way.

DO NOTE: Agents don't get paid for reading your queries. They don't owe you feedback. They only get paid when they sell a book, and if your book isn't ready to sell, you're clogging up the pipeline and slowing down the process for other writers (like maybe you, a couple of years from now) who really are ready to publish.

The way to get feedback is to join a critique group or find a beta reader.

There are lots of opportunities for these online. Some can be snarky and useless, so do check with other users before you put your fledgling writing out there. Kristen Lamb's is a bully-free, friendly community where you can meet beta readers. Two other great resources are are and SheWrites.  GalleyCat has a great new sign-up system for finding the right critique group.

Also the wonderful Jami Gold has a valuable post this week on how to find beta readers. 

For more on querying agents, we're going to have a guest post in March from agent Pam Van Hylckama Vlieg (yes, the one who was attacked by the crazed rejected author a couple of years ago) She's now a partner at Foreword Literary Agency and she'll be talking about the changing guidelines for queries.

4) You can launch a career with one book.

Blame the movies: the writer-hero struggles to finish that opus, finally types the last page, sends it to an agent and voila!—he has a contract and a book tour and he's an overnight millionaire.

This doesn’t happen anymore. If it ever did.

For self-publishers, it's almost impossible to get a readership with one book. Most successful marketing of self-published books is based on free and cheap deals to entice readers to come in and sample your work so they'll buy more. If there's no "more", all you're doing is giving away the store. Both Howey and Hocking had close to ten books a piece before they started making the big sales.

And even if you're going the traditional route, you need at least two books. I know this from experience, too.

I landed an agent with one of my first chick lit queries, and she had it six months and almost made a deal with Bantam. But did I use that time to work hard on a second book? No. I wasted my leisure hours obsessing about stupid stuff like whether I should quit my day job and what I'd wear on a book tour. (Yeah, I was running one of those movies in my head the whole time.)

When the deal fell through, my agent asked if I had anything else. I didn't. So she dropped me. I thought I could regain the magic with another agent, but by then the book had been out on submission to editors and no agent would touch it. I was back at square one with an unpublishable manuscript.

These days, most authors have to query agents for years, then when they get a deal, it's usually for multiple books. If you don't have those manuscripts waiting in the hopper, you'd better be good at writing very, very fast (while going on blog tours and social networking like mad.) 

And that book tour? These days they don't happen for anybody but superstars. Tours for newer authors simply don't offer a good return on investment except for reality TV stars or politicians with SuperPacs to buy up all the books.

5) Just finish the book, throw it up on Amazon and let the customer reviews tell you what needs editing.

No. No. NO!! This one makes me cringe. I still see lots of writers telling each other this nonsense in forums, and even some of the big self-publishing gurus advocate it.

But they are not doing new writers any favors. 

First of all, this gives ammunition to every self-publishing hater out there. You're creating the very "tsunami of crap" indies are accused of perpetrating.

And using Amazon or Goodreads customer reviewers as your critique group is one of the worst ideas ever.

Anybody who thinks they're going to learn anything from online reviews hasn't read them. 

Could George Orwell have learned from this review of 1984?

"I highly reccomend that you DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. And please for the love of God don't read that "Brave New World" book by Hoxley. It is twice as worse as 1984. To put it bluntly, DON'T READ ANY GEORGE ORWELL. Your just waisting your time.""

Or maybe Tolstoy could have improved Anna Karenina after reading this?

"If you see Anna for $5 at your neighbor's garage sale, go ahead and buy it. Hollow it out, and stash a handgun in there. Leave it next to your toilet if you have unwanted guests. Beat your disobedient child with it. Put it in your fireplace and have a nice glass of vodka. Just don't read it! You have been warned."

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which tops pretty much everybody's "Best of 2013" lists has nearly 200 one-star reviews on Amazon with enlightening comments like this:

"This book is too depressing and sad. I have yet to finish it. Just when I think it will get better something else bad happens."

Right. Don't let anything bad happen to your characters, Ms. Tartt. We want books about nice people watching paint dry.

All you can tell from one-star customer reviews is that the reviewer was probably having a bad day. They do not help you write better books.

See #3 for suggestions of places to get useful feedback.

Then hire an editor. 

6) Don’t waste time on short fiction.

This is another one I fell for. I spent way too much time working on unpublishable novels instead of honing my craft with short fiction that could build a list of credits and establish my brand.

People will still tell you that short stories are a waste of time because they don’t make any money, but that has all changed with the ebook (see my posts on "Why you Should be Writing Short Fiction" and "Short is the New Long".)

Here are some reasons to write short-form fiction

Short is definitely the new long right now. Novellas are having a renaissance, too. (In February we will host Paul Alan Fahey, author of a series of popular novellas. He'll offer a nuts-and-bolts formula for writing a compelling novella.)

What about you, scriveners? Have you followed any of this bad advice? What other writing misinformation have you heard? I had too much to list in one post, so I'll be writing about this again in February. Anything to add to my list?


This month, Sherwood, Ltd is 99c for Kindle US, UK, Nook, and FREE on Smashwords and on Kobo. And for book-sniffers (I have to admit to some closet book-sniffing myself) it is available in paper for the marked-down price of $8.54 (regularly $8.99 on Amazon and $12.99 in stores.) It's also on sale in paper in the in the UK for £6.81.

"A wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills to suspicion of everybody in the book...Read this book. It will be well worth the time."...David Keith at Smashwords

"One uses the term 'romping good yarn' advisedly but in fact this tale is exactly that. Aspiring author and failed A-lister Camilla, desperate for funds and affection, joins forces with a publishing team that beggars description. The similarities between the legend of Robin Hood and this story are subtle, the links never overdone or cliched. The narrative leaps from one twist to the next turn with pace and energy. The characters are delightfully off-centre and the hero? Well, he is definitely of a kind to swing down from the trees armed with bow and nocked arrow."...Prue Batten, author of the Guy of Gisborne series

BTW although Sherwood has all 5-star reviews on Smashwords, its Amazon buy page has had a visit from a couple of bullies who object to my "behavior" (i.e. writing a 2011 blogpost urging non-techie grandmas to write reviews). If you have read and enjoyed the book, some genuine reviews would be very welcome, especially on Amazon.


Glamour Magazine "My Real Life Story" Essay Contest NO ENTRY FEE. $5000 prize, plus possible publication in Glamour. Creative nonfiction. Must be factual and appropriate for a Glamour audience. 2500-3500 words. Deadline February 1st.

GLIMMER TRAIN FAMILY MATTERS CONTEST $1500 prize, plus publication in Glimmer Train Stories, plus 20 copies. $15 ENTRY FEE. They're looking for stories about families of all configurations. It's fine to draw on real experiences, but the work must read like fiction. Maximum word count: 12,000. Any shorter lengths are welcome. Deadline: March 31, 2014.

Dog Lovers! AMERICAN KENNEL CLUB FICTION WRITING CONTEST NO ENTRY FEE. Submit one short story, maximum 2,000 words. Entries can be on any subject, but must feature a dog. (But it can't talk) Prizes $500, $240, $100. Deadline January 31.

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